Facts are for little people?

This winter term I’m teaching historical theory to undergraduate students, a required course that never fails to unnerve them, and not just because reading theory challenges seemingly settled world views. This week, they are unsettled because we are trying to wrap our heads around facts, evidence, the author, and today we take up the nineteenth-century origins of empirical knowledge.

We will read Kant, Hegel, and Ranke but through Bonnie Smith’s devastating critique of men and historical practice, The Gender of History (Harvard UP, 2000) http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674002043&content=reviews. gender-of-historyThis book could not be more pertinent for the troubled times of January 2017 when facts are treated with contempt. The cruel irony of this for historians cannot be more dangerous.

One argument she makes is that history and historical practice was gendered masculine in the nineteenth century by men who worked for, or at least supported, the nationalist states by providing the historical foundations for a mythic, heroic past to justify the creation of imperialist nations–Britain, Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Russia. Ranke and his many students, trained in a seminar style that excluded women and everyone else deemed inferior, argued for an ideal, universal history composed of impartially, meticulously gathered evidence about the deeds of that was dubbed factual. Anything that was not political was considered inferior–the lives of women, non-Europeans, non-Christians, and anything that described the ordinary, everyday, and the “irrational.” Facts were masculine, and the collection and publication of facts was crucial to the formation of a masculine professoriate that put facts on a pedestal.

This would all be just a classroom exercise to train young historians in the ethics of our  work. But Donald Trump’s disdain for facts threatens to throw all this in a compost heap.

Facts, tricky as they are for historians to define, have been batted around in the past few decades by political conservatives who seek to discard the inconvenient ones about race, gender, and class as they promote a past that harks back to the 19th century desire for a heroic past. But the textbook wars over the Alamo, slavery, the Founding Fathers, women’s suffrage all pale now in comparison to an incoming President who treats facts with disdain.

In Trump’s elitist, privileged worldview, facts are not the things that define manhood. No, facts are the things that define the chumps, the little people, the powerless who call up facts to mess up the heroic manly past of “high” political history. For Trump, power gives him the privilege to ignore what he knows to be factually correct–from his golf game to whether Walt Disney designed the kids’ rooms at Mar-a-Lago https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/16/us/politics/donald-trump-butler-mar-a-lago.html?_r=0. Rich white elitist men don’t need facts. Facts are treated with same smug ease that women are, with contempt.

With Trump’s treatment of women, I turn now to a recent letter from Professor Liz Herbert McAvoy, the president of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarshiphttp://smfsweb.org, who makes two important points. First, the vital importance of feminist work now, when more than ever we need to declare the facts of the experiences of all people, all expressions of genders and sexualities, across time. And second, that this battle is just one of many feminists face and that the only way to do our work is to keep moving together.

Here’s her letter (very lightly abridged);

The cusp of the new year also seems a very good time to remind ourselves of the stated mission of SMFS–-to promote interdisciplinary exchange across the world in terms of gender, women’s and feminist studies, an exchange that appears to have become more pressing than ever during the course of this past year. Indeed, in 2016 the SMFS Advisory Board found it necessary to reiterate several times their commitment to valuing diversity, difference and inclusivity, and to opposing most actively any form of discrimination based on gender, gender identity, race, religion, disability or sexual orientation. This reaffirmation of commitment has been reflected in a number of new initiatives already being rolled out by the SMFS Advisory Board.

First came the ‘Fem-fog’ debacle which, allied to the sobering results of the Ad Board’s 2015 survey on the extent of harassment (sexual and otherwise) on our campuses, rendered imperative a series of initiatives aimed at countering this ongoing epidemic of intimidating practices and behaviours.  Discussions on this issue were held at roundtables at the Kalamazoo and Leeds international congresses, with members of the Advisory Board contributing to both, and a series of strategies and initiatives drawn up in their wake.

Firstly, a designated webpage on the SMFS website has been launched where anti-harassment policies, strategies and advice can be collated, including important news reports and legal precedents, providing an initial go-to resource for those feeling the force of academic harassment or bullying. Secondly, Jennifer Edwards and Linda Mitchell have begun work on a Special Issue of Medieval Feminist Forum on the topic of harassment, both in the Middle Ages and contemporary times, creating a teleological dialogue to assist our understanding of the insidious workings of harassment, abuse and discrimination. One of the volume’s contributors, Dr Ann Olivarius, brings to bear upon the volume her wide experience as an international civil rights lawyer specialising in corporate and academic sexual harassment and abuse. The Special Edition will be available via free access on the MFF website later this year and will be added to our growing list of resources.

In the longer term, the Advisory Board has established a new Trans* Travel Fund to assist those of our colleagues who identify as trans* to travel and attend conferences within a climate where certain forms of transport may well present more risks due to the scrutiny of gender presentation these colleagues may encounter. This fund was kicked off by a number of generous membership donations and has since been augmented by the sales of new merchandise (‘swag’), such as our ‘#Embrace the Femfog’ and ‘We are SMFS’ buttons; our wrist-band memory sticks and tote bags, all on sale at Kalamazoo and Leeds in 2016. The range of swag on sale is due to expand this Spring! Jes Boon has just opened the application process for 2017 Trans* Travel Fund assistance (please see the website for more information). The success of this and our other initiatives, however, is obviously dependent upon further donation, so do please consider contributing something, however small, in 2017!

Our other more longstanding initiatives generated their own success stories in 2016. Jamie Gunderson won our 2016 Graduate Student Essay Prize, later published in MFF. The winner of the 2016 First Book Prize was Jennifer Thibodeux, for her The Manly Priest: Clerical Celibacy, Masculinity and Reform in England and Normandy, 1066-1300 http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15447.html. manly-priestJenny Bledsoe was the recipient of the Foremothers’ Fellowship Prize, allowing her to travel to the UK for essential manuscript research. This latter prize was established, and continues to be facilitated by a generous donation of royalties from The Oxford Handbook of Women and Gender in Medieval Europe, edited by Judith M. Bennett and Ruth Mazo Karras, and was recently augmented by an equally generous donation from the BABEL working group. Enormous thanks are due to both sets of donors for enabling the continuation of this important initiative. Many congratulations are also due to all three competition winners. The processes to award the 2017 prizes are now well underway, with announcements scheduled for this coming Spring.

Another important initiative has been to forge much closer links with the UK-based Gender and Medieval Studies (GMS) group, with whom SMFS has been co-organizing roundtables at the Leeds IMC for many years now. A recent rebuilding of the GMS website was supported by SMFS and plans are now developing to organize a jointly-sponsored conference in 2018: more details on this will follow in the new year. Membership of SMFS and GMS has soared in recent months, between them now able to be measured in thousands, rather than hundreds! We certainly hope to see this increase sustained during the forthcoming year and it is, of course, concerted proof of the fact that we remain stronger, more confident and more cooperative in community.


Truth, lies, and the consequences of confusing the two

We have long struggled with the problem of fallibility (ours, speaking as a historian), facts, and questions of truth and truth-claims. Now, it seems we are faced every day with the very real and very vexing problem of public lying, or as some want to call it, “opinions.”

In our classrooms, we correct students who call an interpretation or analysis an “opinion.” We tell them “I like the color red” is an opinion, a statement of preference, but whether or not race existed in the Middle Ages is an interpretation based on close reading of primary source documents. Yet each of struggles with this every term, when at least one student claims, for example, that Robert Bartlett’s thesis on race and ethnicity in the Middle Ages is his opinion. Aarrgghh. We correct them, critique them, ding the grade, and still it persists.

But, holy Moses, this has gotten out of hand. President-elect Trump blasts out a demonstrably false tweet about electoral fraud and the VP-elect Mike Pence dismisses this  lie as “opinion.”  Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, the designated national security adviser, and his son, spread malicious lies about Hillary Clinton and yet the New York Times called this “social media musings.” Truth as musing? Truth gets dismissed as inconvenient (á la Al Gore’s film) or so very quaint, something only a third-grade teacher in the 1950s would care about.

Is anyone keeping score? Truth is losing, badly.

So, let’s get out there and turn this nasty and dangerous bit of anti-intellectual derision into a teaching moment. We can structure our classroom and homework assignments around questions of  what facts are, what truth is, and how to discern one from the other. I recall one of the most challenging final exam questions in a college history course was this: Prove definitely that Louis XIV actually lived. I think I got a decent grade on that exam, but looking back, I can now see the pedagogy behind it: check your sources. Rigorously. Trust them only after you check them again and again. Verify translations. Be skeptical.

This fall, in a survey course on the history of the Middle Ages, I asked students to ponder what “truths” our sources tell about non-elites. As primary sources, I had them use the Domesday Book and archaeology reports from eleventh-century Britain. For context, they used an “empirical” textbook. They struggled, but I think (I hope) they got the point: It take a LOT of work to know even a partial truth about medieval Britain. It wasn’t a perfect assignment, and next time, I’ll have them read something to prep them for the problem of historical truth, the bias in a textbook, and how to read obliquely to find truth in what’s omitted.

As I put together syllabi for the winter term, here are just a few things on my reading list:

  • Dewey, John. “The problem of truth.” The Essential Dewey 2 (1911): 101-130.
  • Lynch, Michael Patrick. The nature of truth: Classic and contemporary perspectives. Mit Press, 2001.
  • White, Hayden. The content of the form: Narrative discourse and historical representation. JHU Press, 2009.
  • White, Hayden. “Historical Emplotment and the Problem of’ Truth.'” Probing the Limits of Representation, ed. S. Friedlander, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1992).

But what I’m really interested in are pedagogical strategies, so please share your ideas.







Wow, that was fast

It hasn’t been a month since the election and already Meg Worthen in the New York Times is urging liberal professors to go back to the 1940s and The Great Books. I think I have whiplash from the abrupt change I direction. Weren’t we just talking about pedagogy of disenfranchised, historically neglected or maligned groups?

As a medieval historian who leans left politically, I teach bits of this Mortimer Adler-inspired pedagogy, but not because I want to indoctrinate new conservatives. I teach Augustine and Aquinas because they’re fundamental to understanding the mentalité of medieval Europeans. But the key difference between what I do and what most conservatives advocate is that I was trained to critique the Great Books. His was not part of some bastion of left-wing foment but at a Jesuit Catholic university.

I have many bones to pick with Professor Worthen’s op ed piece, but for now I’ll focus on the way that conservatives use Great Books as static and heroic, and in so doing they drain the life out of them. These texts beg for a regular critique by another great thinker who happens to be alive, or to have lived since 1800. Augustine and his Great Books companions take a beating from post-modern critiques but ultimately they still stands tall. For example, in the run-up to war with Iraq in 2003, there was excellent work done on just war theory by Martin Marty at the University of Chicago.  Lisa Sowle Cahill works on feminist ethics and works extensively with Augustine and Aquinas.

Dead white Chrisitian men do matter, but not just as icons for veneration by a conservative reading group. They are best read alongside a crititque that refracts the texts through a contemporary standpoint epistemology.

And not only should they not be read in isolation, they should not be the only thing read. There are hundreds of Great Books written by non-Christian, non-western women and men that are as important as Augustine and Aquinas.

My question for you: How do you teach canonical texts in troublesome times? What modern authors do you pair with them?

The history of sanctuary in a modern context

In today’s Chronicle of Higher EducationShannon Najmabadi discusses how colleges are responding to demands that they become “sanctuaries.” The movement to declare cities and now, colleges and universities, sanctuaries is a fascinating approach to an age-old problem: where do people find safety when the government and institutions law enforcement do not create a sense of well-being and security. As a medieval historian, I’m thinking back to the early Middle Ages when sanctuary was used as a way to provide a safe space from the law. As an American, I’m aware of the roots of American jurisprudence in English common law and that English legal forms and principles have been transformed and shaped to suit particular political, social, and economic circumstances.

If you’re thinking of using this in your courses, here are some recent works, mostly on medieval law, on the subject:

Field, Teresa. “Biblical influences on the medieval and early modern English law of sanctuary.” Ecclesiastical Law Journal 2:9 (1991), pp. 222-225.

William R. Jones, “Sanctuary, Exile, and Law: The Fugitive and Public Authority in Medieval England and Modern America,” in Essays on English Law and the American Experience, ed. Elizabeth Cawthon (Arlington: Univeristy of Texas at Arlington, 1994), pp. 

Jordan, William Chester. “A Fresh Look at Medieval Sanctuary.” In Law and the Illicit in Medieval Europe, ed. Ruth Mazo Karras, Joel Kaye, and E. Anne Matter (Philadelphia: Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), pp. 17-32.

McSheffrey, Shannon. “Sanctuary and the legal topography of pre-reformation London.” Law and History Review 27:3 (2009), pp. 483-514.

Rosser, Gervase. “Sanctuary and social negotiation in medieval England.” The Cloister and the World: Essays in Medieval History in Honour of Barbara Harvey 63 (1996), pp. 57-79.

Shoemaker, Karl Blaine. “Sanctuary Law: Changing Conceptions of Wrongdoing and Punishment in Medieval European Law.” Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2001.

I welcome anyone with an expertise beyond Christian Europe before 1500 to continue this list.



More, more, and more reading

These are some items that came into my inbox today and I hope they are helpful:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum condemns a white nationalist conference  for its racist rhetoric held on November 19 at the Ronald Reagan Building just blocks from the Museum. The press release noted that “The Holocaust did not begin with killing; it began with words. The Museum calls on all American citizens, our religious and civic leaders, and the leadership of all branches of the government to confront racist thinking and divisive hateful speech.”

Also considering the power of words, an article in the New York Times, by Professor Sara Lipton, a medieval historian at State University of New York, Stony Brook, is timely and important reading.

The University of Chicago is planning to offer a course on “Trump 101” to understand the election. The course will be taught by Anthropology professor William Mazzarella in the spring of 2017 (depending on student demand). The course addresses “Trumpism as a symptom of our political present. Where are we? How did we get here? Where do we go from here?”

From the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity: We have received numerous requests for a discussion of post-election stress and ways that under-represented faculty can cope with emerging classroom dynamics. So we’ve invited your favorite guest expert on race in the classroom to provide an open Q&A session. Bring your questions and concerns for Professor Chavella Pittman on Thursday, December 8 at 2pm ET.

Stephen Kuusisto, on the Academe blog, has a very useful posting, “Teaching in the Age of Trump” that includes a lengthy list of books that he says “highlight the radicalism of what, for lack of a better term I’m calling compassionate irony. These poets, non-fictionists and fiction writers are assembled here in no discernible order—their work has come to me as I’ve walked in the public square. The public square is a steeper place now.”

And, on a similar note and because we all need to take our brains out for a walk, the Literary Hub blog has compiled 50 Necessary Books for Your Anger and Your Action,” including noteworthy fiction, non-fiction and poetry. These works both soothes and agitates, but they’re all always worth reading.

From a Facebook post: “The Pence-Hamilton controversy presents a great opportunity to weave into a class lesson plan in all sorts of disciplines. For example, a Duke U. emeritus Classics prof contributed an essay to our city paper. The angle he took was Trump’s tweet that the theatre is a safe place. Let’s put irony aside–Trump has assailed “sanctuary” cities for the undocumented and college campuses for trying to be safe havens for minorities from potentially offensive speakers. The prof’s contention was that the theatre has never been a “safe” place, even for royalty. He uses this hook to interest us in Classic Greek plays and their playwrights tweaking the sensibilities of an Athenian businessman in 5th century BC.”

And finally, because the going will get rough, here’s a blog posting on how to write an anti-authoritarian academic code of conduct.

Quick notes from the trenches

Here are some thoughts from colleagues:

One colleague from an English department suggested that we put our heads together to discuss how to teach about, “information integrity, fact-checking, peer review, how-to-spot-fake-news” in these “post-truth” times.

One university is hosting a Listening Session for faculty who teach in the Core Curriculum.  The hope is that this will be a place to share faculty experiences in your classrooms this quarter and, in particular, over the last few weeks—weeks that have been personally and professionally exhausting. Here’s what the director says:

Many of our colleagues and students have spoken eloquently about the current political situation and its effects on them, their friends, and their families—others continue to find it difficult to express their thoughts and are struggling to find their own voice in response to our current national moment. Still others, who are sometimes afraid to voice their views, are in a more celebratory mood. 

It is clear that the concerns and views of our students and our colleagues are sometimes in conflict and that not all of us are of the same opinion or share the same concerns.  We hope that this Listening Session might provide the first of many opportunities to share your own concerns, your own stories, the stories of your students, and to raise questions that you and your students might have about how to move forward.

As university professors, it is our responsibility to provide a space where all students can speak and to help guide them in how to do so in civil and, we hope, productive ways.  This is a more challenging and critical task now than it perhaps has been before and we believe that we can best approach it when we do so together, as a community.  We hope that this Listening Session might be the start of the important work we need to do to strengthen our capacity to lead such difficult conversations.

That captures the feeling many of us have as we struggle to put our minds to what matters.

We’ve got to start somewhere

I’ve been thinking about winter term classes and decided to use the present political turmoil as a teaching moment. For example, in my Women in the Middle Ages class, I plan to include assignments on the rhetoric of misogyny and sexual innuendo & political scandal in the royal court. And in the historical theory class, extra doses of feminist, race, class, post-colonial theory with the Spanish Inquisition as the historical problem for analysis. It’s deliciously ironic, but I have used Lu Ann Homza’s edited collection of primary sources for this class before and it was terrific. Now it couldn’t be more pertinent.

I can’t be alone in wanting to build assignments that allow students to examine the deep roots of the present mess. What are all of you who teach planning to do?

But it would be very effective, I think,  if we could gather all this stuff together in this blog site for easy reference.

When I posted a query for this on Facebook, here are some of the replies (anonymous for the moment):

  • “My spring class is supposed to be from 1492 to the present. But I’m very tempted to narrow it down to two key moments – the shift from diversity to unity under Ferdinand & Isabella and through the 16th century, and then jumping to the 20th century, the shift from unity under Franco (with lots of rhetorical gestures towards F&I) to diversity with the transition to democracy. (super oversimplified, I know, but that’s a semester in one sentence – would focus on the roles of society, church, government, and various kinds of minorities, to see the reasons for those shifts and who benefits in what kinds of ways from them.). Is that nuts?”
  •  “I have organized my early medieval history survey *and* my medieval Spain class around these ideas this semester.”
  • “Some semesters I’ve made a point of reading a famous saying (like Roman ones in Rome class) or explaining a grammar point at the beginning of class, just as a thing to do. This makes me wonder if maybe I should read a sentence or two from the Constitution or the amendments. I don’t teach American history, so this might not be appropriate, but still … Today I’m doing the French Wars of Religion from the 16th c, and I already had planned to make a point emphasizing that this kind of history in Europe is why we have separation of church and state (since I had a student in that class ask what ever had happened to the ‘age old’ separation of church and state notion, which he knew had started way earlier than the 16th c). Now maybe I’ll put the first amendment on a PowerPoint slide as added illustration.”

I hope you join the conversation!